Monday, October 31, 2011

Chimps, Genes, and Reading Past the Headline

" 'Junk' All That Separates Humans From Chimps"
Science - SCITECH, (October 27, 2011)

"We all are the one percent, apparently.

"Scientists have long been baffled by the genetic similarities between humans and chimpanzees, which share up to 99 percent of the same DNA despite our vast differences in appearance and ability -- baffled until now, that is. Researchers have determined that the only thing that separates us from chimps is a tiny bit of 'junk DNA.'..."

No, Really: This Makes Sense

At that point, the Lemming didn't know what to expect. Between folks who desperately want to believe that the universe is maybe 6,000 years old, and others determined to believe that humanity is a cancer in Mother Nature, there's been a lot of nonsense flung around the marketplace of ideas.

That "tiny bit" and "junk DNA" suggested that this article might be of the 'human beings are nothing but hairless chimps' variety.

So the Lemming kept reading. Hey: that's the only way to find out if it's worth writing about.

Turns out, "junk DNA" is what odd bits of code in the human genome were called. The Lemming will get back to that.

"...Led by Georgia Tech professor of biology John McDonald, a new study has verified that while the sequence of genes between humans and chimpanzees is nearly identical, Chimpanzees have certain gaps in their genome. In humans, those gaps are filled with what is known as 'junk DNA.' The findings are reported in the most recent issue of the online, open-access journal Mobile DNA.The research could go a long way in answering a universal question -- what makes us so different?

" 'Let's say intelligence is your ability to compose poetry, symphonies, do art, math and science,' astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explained at a talk at St. Petersburg College. 'Chimps can't do any of that, yet we share 99 percent DNA.'..."

One of the big questions, given how genetically similar chimps and humans are, is why we're so radically different. Assuming that the answer is strictly in our DNA, that means that the "junk DNA" may not be quite as junky as it's assumed to be.

'We Don't Understand It, So It's "Junk"?'

There's an explanation, of sorts, for how that 1 percent got called "junk." Basically, it's because researchers didn't know what it did. Back to that article, again:

"...For years, scientists assumed the opposite, that this junk DNA did very little. By definition, the sequences have had no known biological functions, such as encoding for protein sequences.

"But McDonald's research indicates these bits of seemingly random code act as important regulators within the human genome, serving as on and off switches, activating important genes and regulating how they are expressed...."

The Lemming isn't sure that it's quite appropriate to call something "junk," because a researcher doesn't understand what it does. On the other hand, "junk" is a whole lot easier to say - and shorter - than something like "seemingly random sequences," so maybe it's a good choice after all.

Anyway, this is a fascinating twist in our studies of human genetics. For the Lemming: your experience may vary.

Somewhat-related posts:
More related posts:

What the Lemming thinks about science, religion, and getting a grip:


Brigid said...

A word that should not be capitalized: "Anyway, This is a fascinating twist"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Quite so. Fixed, and thanks!

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